Voting and Elections  ring hollow for Rajasthan’s landless nomadic tribes

By Inder Bisht,

Prabhu Kalbelia has been living with his family on the outskirts of Bemali village of Bhilwara district for the last forty years in a makeshift shanty which has no provision of electricity and drinking water.

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Eight other families of the community, who originally belong to the sapera or snake charmer tribe, who are nomads and categorised as scheduled tribes, live in separate hovels beside a road on the village’s grazing land.

Prabhu’s two little kids nudged us towards a large piece of land nearby barricaded with a boundary wall. Pointing towards two small mounds of soil covered under a rich growth of grass at a corner, the kids yell, “Dada (grandfather) and Dadi (grandmother) are buried here.”

Kalbelias trace their ancestry to Guru Gorakhnath, a Hindu yogi and saint who don’t cremate their dead ones.

“We bury our dead ones by putting the body in sitting position under the ground and build a small structure or place a rock over it for remembrance. We call the process ‘samadhi’,” says Ratan Nath Kalbelia, a social activist belonging to the community.

Meanwhile, the owner of the land where the graves are located arrives.

Kalbelia settlement outside Bemali village in Bhilwara

Pretending to have no knowledge about the graves, Gulab Singh, belonging to the “upper”-caste Rajput community, initially tries to evade answering any questions but eventually accepts that he only realized much after buying the land that graves were present inside his plot “I had purchased this land from the village panchayat. No one had told me that people are buried here. I found it out later,” says a mustachioed Singh, mildly.

In Rajasthan, every community has its own separate cremation grounds where people from other communities, particularly of the lower castes, are not allowed to cremate their dead ones. With Kalbelias the problem is more acute as they bury their deceased members.

“In the absence of access to cremation grounds, Kalbelias bury their dead ones near their homes,” says Ratan Nath. As most of the community members don’t own the rights over the land where they live in, villagers in several occasions in the state have reportedly damaged the graves and have even pulled out the bodies in order to intimidate the community.

Prabhu Kalbelia

“High court has given an order that Kalbelia community is allowed to bury their dead ones in grazing or government land, but village panchayats still create hurdles by giving the land illegally to individuals, which creates tension between the owners and the community,” says Ratan Nath, giving the example of Gulab Singh who was fraudulently given a land which had graves in it.

Having lived the larger part of the last century as wanderers in search of food or as a part of their way of life, nomadic tribes of the state have been struggling to gain their political and constitutional rights ever since they settled permanently at one place. “After the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 was implemented, catching and domesticating wild animals like snakes, and sloth bears became illegal which fundamentally altered the way of lives of nomadic tribes like Kalbelias,” says Prabhu.

No longer being the snake charmers, Kalbelias gradually started settling in the peripheries of villages doing odd jobs like manual labour and contract farming to keep their home running.

However, with a society characterized by a rigid caste hierarchy, it is difficult for the nomads to fit in into the village caste system. They are condemned to live in the periphery of village’s political, economic and social life.

“The established village communities never accepted the nomads as part of their lives and barely tolerated them in the outskirts,” says Ratan Nath. At the Kalbelia settlement outside Bemali village, people restrict their movement to their tents as the night falls due to the absence of any arrangement of lighting.

Pointing towards a cemented platform in the middle of the cluster of huts made of bamboo and plastic sheets, Prabhu’s wife Parsi says that the raised structure saves them from getting bitten by poisonous snakes and other pests  during the rainy season.

“As the night falls this area gets infested with reptiles and snakes, especially during the monsoon season. We don’t have electricity supply because we don’t own the rights to the land,” says Parsi.

All the adults of the settlement posses voter IDs and Aadhar cards, however, they don’t have title rights over the land where they have been living or a Below Poverty Line card that can help them get cheap ration.

“It shows the priority of the political leaders. They are interested in people’s votes but not in providing the basic services necessary for their survival,” says Ratan Nath.

Prabhu says he does cast his vote during elections to the candidate “others” ask him to give.

Rights activists and community leaders who have managed to find some ears in the mainstream political parties have been trying to highlight the issues plaguing the Kalbelia and other nomadic communities for some time now. However, due to the inherent differences among the over thirty nomadic tribes in the state, the seven million nomads have failed to emerge as a unified  political force and hence don’t impress the political players enough to give due attention to their problems.

Working with the rights of the nomads, Paras Banjara, belonging to the nomadic Banjara community, says that the lack of ground-level implementation of the government schemes directed towards the nomadic communities is another big problem hampering their inclusion in the mainstream of society.

In the absence of land rights, people can’t even claim the benefits of government schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna which gives monetary compensation to build houses.

“In 2012, me as part of a group of activists had met with the then chief secretary of the state and explained to him the issues facing the communities,” says Banjara.

After the meeting, Banjara says, the chief secretary ordered all the district collectors of the state to make identity cards of the nomadic people.

“The second decision was to give below poverty line status to all the communities. The third was to give every nomadic family the title right of 446 square feet in urban areas while 2674 square feet in rural areas,” he adds.

Despite the decisions taken in the meeting, that were later communicated to district offices, their ground level implementation didn’t happen.

Banjara opined that one of the main reasons for non-implementation of the government decisions was the general hostile attitude of village panchayat members towards the nomadic people.

Parsi Kalbelia shows her voter id

“Ultimately, the government decisions are implemented by the village panchayats. And in these panchayats the “”upper””-caste members don’t allow the nomadic communities to live in their villages,” says Banjara.

“They procrastinate the decisions. Panchayats have the autonomy to implement the government orders,” he adds.

Naveen Narayan, a rights activist with the NGO Action Aid says that the identity of the groups largely depends upon their ability to produce proof of land.

“A caste certificate is made on the information provided in land documents. If a person doesn’t have them then it’s very difficult to authenticate his or her caste,” says Narayan.

Citing an example of an incident in one of the districts of the state, Narayan says in a rape case the victim couldn’t prove that she was a Kalbelia, which is recognized as a Scheduled Caste in that district, hence couldn’t get compensation under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

Narayan suggests that the government should accept self-declared affidavits by individuals to circumvent the issue of caste identification.

Congress and BJP parties in their manifestos for the Assembly Election if 2018 had promised to provide free title rights to landless nomadic communities, however, four months into the newly elected  government no difference has been noticed in the state, claims Banjara.

“We are demanding that both the political parties introduce a Right to Estate like the one we have in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh where the government purchases land and gives it to the landless. The onus to provide land to the landless should fall on the government,” says Banjara.